Edward Sebesta v. Barack Obama and the Battle for Civil War Memory

Looks like anti-Neo-Confederate crusader, Edward Sebesta, is getting a head start on this year’s petition requesting that President Obama not send a wreath to the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery.  I covered this in some detail on the blog and was very open in my opposition to such a petition.  [You can read my commentary here and here.]  To sum up, I didn’t see how a petition (written by Sebesta and James Loewen) against the laying of a wreath would lead to anything approaching a constructive and meaningful dialog about the Civil War, race, and memory.  More importantly, it all but ignored the fact that we now have a president in office who is ideally suited to encourage and/or lead such a discussion.

Sebesta seems quite pleased with the impact of the petition, though I believe he exaggerates its affect.  First, let me be clear that I agree with Sebesta’s general assessment of the problem with the Confederate monument at Arlington.  It perpetuates a number of myths about slavery and black Confederates.  The monument was dedicated at the height of Jim Crow and ought to be seen as one of the clearest expressions of the Lost Cause memory of the Civil War.  While we may agree on interpretation we disagree on how best to engage the general public regarding such sensitive issues.  Continue reading

A Quick Thought About the Coates-Smith Interview

I don’t know how I failed to comment on this, but the discussion early on in the interview is important.  It is unusual to hear two African-American men talk about the importance of the Civil War as one of the most important democratizing events in American history.  Of course, Coates is referring to the end of slavery and the service of black men in the United States army.  It’s not that he acknowledges the history as much as that he acknowledges its importance within the sweep of the nation’s history rather than simply within the context of African-American history.  Seems to me that this is an important mental step.  In a recent post I offered a bit of advice on the shared goal of making the Civil War Sesquicentennial attractive to African Americans.  I still maintain that this is going to be difficult given what I perceive to be a disconnect between the African-American community and the history of the Civil War or at least the suspicion among black Americans that the Lost Cause will continue to define public commemorations.  It would be interesting to hear what Coates and Smith have to say about this challenge.

2009 Cliopatria Awards

The 2009 Cliopatria Awards were announced yesterday evening as part of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  The awards are well deserved and reflect a format that remains vibrant and creative.  [Note: Keep in mind that each category is decided by an independent committee, which explains why Georgian London won two awards.]

Best Group Blog: Curious Expeditions

Best Individual Blog: Georgian London

Best New Blog: Georgian London

Best Post: Rachel Leow’s “Curating the Oceans: The Future of Singapore’s Past,” A Historian’s Craft, 14 July 2009.

Best Series of Posts: Heather Cox Richardson’s “Richardson’s Rules of Order,” The Historical Society Blog, 20 March 2009.

Best Writer: The Headsman, at Executed Today.

Ta-Nehisi Coates Interviews Frank Smith

I have become a big fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s column over at Atlantic Monthly, especially his thoughts about what the Civil War means to a young African American male.  [See here, here, and here] I’ve met Frank Smith a couple of times over the past few years, most recently in 2007, when I interviewed him as part of my research on black memory of the Crater.  Mr. Smith has been involved in D.C. politics over the past few decades, but he is perhaps best known for helping to bring about a monument to United States Colored Troops in the city.  He also established a museum a few blocks from the monument, which explores the history and contributions of black soldiers to the Civil War.

I just love the way they shrug off talk about black Confederates.  We could take issue with Smith’s claim that no free black Southerners managed to join the army, but there is something refreshing about watching these two men discuss a subject that they understand.

Thinking About Hattie McDaniel

I am not too surprised that my students are enjoying Gone With the Wind.  The discussions have been pretty good thus far.  For Monday they must bring in a newspaper article about the movie and share it with the rest of the group.  I am hoping that they come in with articles from different decades so we get a sense of how the movie was received/interpreted at different times.  Today I began the class by playing Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar acceptance speech for best supporting actress in 1939.  I asked my students to think about the sharp contrast between the woman who accepted the award and the character she plays in the movie.  There is something very sad and disturbing about this scene once we acknowledge that McDaniel was given an award for her ability to depict a character that was the product of a racist society – one that satisfied the needs of white America.  I want to know what it was like for Hattie McDaniel and the other black actors to have to depict these characters on film.  To what extent were they aware of the racist stereotypes that lay behind these characters?  Are McDaniel’s tears in her acceptance speech any indication of this realization.  I am so curious about these and other question that I decided to purchase a biography about her.